the week ON RADIO
A shocking statistic: over 1,200 Irish pubs have opened across Europe in the last four years, from Barcelona to Berlin. The reason it's shocking is that, as Gerry Anderson pointed out last week in Gerry's Bar (R4, Fri), "the Irish pub", with its sawdust on the floor and strong men boiling over with animal spirits, is a fantasy.

Irishness itself is problematic - national identity is rarely simple, but Ireland's is more hedged about with traps and qualifications than most. Gerry's Bar is one of two series concerned with those difficulties. The other is North and South (R4, Wed), in which the novelist Colm Toibin is trekking along and around the Irish border. The four programmes were recorded in the winter of 1995/6, shortly before the Canary Wharf bomb ended the peace process; and Toibin was largely concerned with tracing the effects of peace, and the after-effects of conflict. So the programmes are full of hopeful images of the detritus of war: border posts torn down, barracks left empty, roads reopened, communities meeting one another after 20 years' separation. The optimism sometimes makes you wince (if not as often as the corny Oirish folk soundtrack does), and it would be nice to have some footnotes on what's going on now, in the second, less cheerful ceasefire: have the troops returned? Are the communities estranged again?

Borders are always a temptation to writers, zones full of resonance and metaphorical possibility, and Toibin is no ascetic. But beneath the poetic manner, the series has a hard core of fact - everything is observed, little is asserted - and a tough-minded refusal to let anyone claim the moral high ground. True, there is a constant sense of the irrationality of the ragged line between North and South, which you could take to be evidence of Republican sympathies. But in this week's second programme, he consciously disdained any glamorising of the Republican tradition, quoting from Yeats: "We have fed our hearts on fantasy, and our heart's grown brutal on the fare." (That could also be the motto for The Playboy of the Western World, this week's Monday Play on Radio 4, the tale of a self-proclaimed murderer all but worshipped for his crime: Peter Kavanagh's production rightly emphasised the darkness of the underlying emotion over the comical absurdity of the situation.)

The outward bluntness of Gerry Anderson's delivery camouflages an underlying hazy idealism. I'm one of Anderson's admirers, but still agnostic about his scripted talks - his natural twinkle sounds too studied. His habitual "We're all mad here" view of Ireland seems clumsy beside Toibin's grimmer appreciation of insanity, too; it doesn't leave much room for nuance. Yesterday's talk ended with him driving from the rustic paradise of Donegal back to Derry: the first thing he saw on arriving home was a news item about a young man hurt in a car crash, and stripped of wallet, watch and shoes by a mob. "Home, sweet home," Anderson concluded.

It seemed an unimaginative contrast.Yet the first headline on the next news bulletin was about an Ulsterman who slit a boy's throat for wearing Celtic colours. Sometimes nuance is a luxury we can do without.

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